To come out or not to come out?  With only 57% of LGBT employees comfortable to disclose their sexuality at work, could employers be doing more to lend support to the remaining 43% grappling with this decision? 

Being the newbie at work comes with an array of familiar, if trivial, dilemmas. What to wear on day one: suited and booted, or smart casual? (And what on earth does smart casual mean, anyway?). Office kitchen etiquette: is the milk available for general consumption, or will you become the social pariah of the office for consuming someone’s personal supply?

But for anyone in the LGBT community, joining a new business also comes hand in hand with a much deeper concern; coming out – if, when, how and to whom? And unlike all the aforementioned, rather more fleeting problems, this one comes with a whole set of potential repercussions.

According to Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index report, only 57% of lesbian, gay and bisexual survey respondents said they were comfortable disclosing their sexuality to colleagues, and only 53% were comfortable coming out to managers and senior leaders. Lesbians reported greater reticence than gay men in coming out at work, and other factors such as geographical location and age created differing trends.

So, what of the 43% of LGBT employees who do not feel confident to disclose their sexuality at work? For some this may be an active choice, and one they are comfortable with. But for the vast majority this is not the case. The anxiety and stress involved can place a huge toll on motivation, engagement and productivity levels at work. After all, it is hard to fit in when you can’t bring your whole self to work, and it is hard to focus on the job in hand when your energies are directed towards ‘covering up’ such a significant aspect of your personal life, or worrying about how and when to open up about your sexuality. And whilst this is not a dilemma any heterosexual person ever has to face, it is one that presents itself over and over again (with every job move and in every new social circumstance) for most LGBT people. Stonewall cites that LGBT survey respondents who are completely out in the workplace are five times less likely to be dissatisfied with their job security compared to those not out at all. So how can we help more people get to that happier place?

The onus befalls employers to develop inclusive workplace cultures that promote sexual orientation equality. Cultures that not only tackle open and overt discrimination with zero tolerance, but that also actively promote awareness and acceptance. Having an equal opportunities policy covering sexual orientation is all well and good. But this alone will not eradicate the so-called ‘harmless’ office banter that carries a whiff of homophobia about it, intended or otherwise. Nor will it do much to overcome the air of awkwardness that LGBT employees so often face when they drop the ‘pronoun bomb’ in conversations about other halves. And these are the sorts of things that can make someone think twice about coming out at work. Little wonder that it can seem a whole lot easier just to leave that part of your life compartmentalised at the office door, even if it is at the expense of your sense of fulfilment at work.

Given that the UK economy could save £650 million per year with more effective implementation of LGBT diversity policies at work (through the improved retention of LGBT employees), we’ve taken a look into some of the strategies that employers should be adopting to work towards this goal. Here’s our top ten list of recommendations on how to engage with and embrace the LGBT community in the workplace.

  1. Policy – at the first and most basic level, employers should scrutinise their equal opportunities policy to ensure that it makes specific reference to issues around sexual orientation.
  2. Monitoring – robust monitoring procedures are a crucial way to gain an understanding of your workforce demographic. Our questionnaires at great{with}diversity provide ideal tools for monitoring all aspects of diversity within your organisation, including sexual orientation. Moreover, they enable you to go way beyond just creating a headcount of each minority group, but also to establish their feedback on engagement levels and job satisfaction. That’s information you can really act upon to make a difference.
  3. Networks – awarded Network Group of the Year 2015 by Stonewall, American Express’ LGBT employee group, Pride UK is a shining example of inclusive practice. Aside from the obvious benefits of creating a sense of inclusion and support, such networks can lend valuable support to the development of sexual orientation content in leadership training, as well as driving through appropriate changes in policy and culture. Employee networks are a great way to not only give minority groups such as LGBT a clear voice at the table, but also to send a message throughout the business of the company’s supportive stance.
  4. Mentoring and Role Models – it can be a huge relief to anyone grappling with the decision of coming out at work to know that others have been fully supported without detriment to their workplace relationships or their career progression. Simon Feeke, Stonewall’s director of membership programmes, says “Gay [people] go to work with very real anxieties about management, for instance, whether they are supportive or not of their sexual orientation. Depending on what they perceive, they might not feel comfortable enough to come out.” American Express’ Pride UK network has even taken mentoring and role models one step further. Their ‘Community Mentoring’ programme provides support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans students from Brighton Business School, and they have also launched ‘role modelling in schools’ where members of the network visit local schools to talk about their experience of working for American Express.
  5. Recruitment Advertising – hiring is a two way process, and is as much about both parties assessing ‘fit’ as it is about determining the right capability match. Utilising recruitment strategies that openly welcome applications from the LGBT community will send a clear and positive message to candidates that they are joining a supportive and inclusive business in which they can feel comfortable in their own skin. Advertising within LGBT targeted publications, job sites and careers events, alongside your other recruitment activity can be a great way to attract diverse talent whilst conveying a message of inclusivity.
  6. LGBT Programmes and Affiliations – employers can also show their support by developing contacts with external support groups and networks. The largest such example is Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme; Britain’s leading employer’s forum on sexual orientation. Member organisations benefit from seminars, conferences, wider networking opportunities, research and global benchmarking data, as well as being able to advertise their affiliation via the use of a logo. Employers should also actively encourage and publicise access to support and advice channels for staff who may be experiencing homophobia or feelings of anxiety regarding coming out at work.
  7. ‘Straight Ally’ Programmes – such programs involve heterosexual men or women who are vocal in their support of LGBT employees, and who are willing and comfortable to intervene against homophobia at any level. Straight allies may be senior figures in the organization or they may hail from a more junior level – it matters not. What does matter is that nothing sends a more compelling message of unity to a lesbian, gay or transgender employee than the unwavering support of a straight colleague.
  8. Training – with increasingly diverse workplaces, it’s essential for your team to receive training, and this should include understanding and managing gay and transgender issues in the workplace. For managers, consider providing training and guidance on how to respond sensitively to people coming out at work.
  9. Recognition and Awards – Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index is free to enter for any employer, and results in the compilation of a Top 100 Employer’s List, which gives recognition to those companies demonstrating best practice. Many other such awards programmes exist, such as the British LGBT Awards and the National Diversity Awards, with specific categories recognising the best role models, networks or brands.
  10. Wider Engagement – whilst networks, role models and corporate initiatives geared towards creating LGBT groups are a really positive step, it is equally important to engage with the wider community both within and outside the company. For example, your organisation may choose to raise money for a specific LGBT charity and engage the wider workforce in fundraising activities. Or there could be opportunities to engage externally with the local community for key LGBT events, such as Pride Week.

In conclusion, coming out (or not) is the choice of the individual. As employers, it is about creating an environment in which that choice is as straightforward as any other form of personal disclosure in the workplace.

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